When it comes to the age of the Earth, Christians – those who base their worldview on the existence of God and the inerrancy of the Bible – are divided into two main camps: New Earth and Old Earth.
New Earth adherents read the creation account in Genesis literally: the Earth (and the rest of the universe) was created in six literal days. 144 hours. The Bible says it, so it must be true. Dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures indeed walked the Earth, but went extinct around the time of the flood. Geologic dating methods, using radio-isotope degradation (ex. carbon dating), are misinterpreted or based on false assumptions. The age of the earth, based on estimates from biblical genealogies, is about 8000 years, give or take a thousand years. That’s essentially the New Earth (also called Young Earth) theory.
Old Earth is quite a bit different. Adherents still believe every word of the account of creation in Genesis 1-2, but they interpret “days” to be figurative, not literal. These “days” are more like “ages” or “eras”. As well, the order of the “days” shouldn’t be taken literally, but reflect God’s principles in creation rather than literal steps. God used natural laws to form the Earth (and the rest of the universe) from the Big Bang to Pangea to evolution. All of the laws and theories we read about in science textbooks made the Earth what it is today. Dinosaurs once ruled the Earth, becoming extinct 65 million years ago. Humans evolved from apes, which evolved from less complex animals through natural selection and biologic evolution. Old Earth creationists seem to be less common than New Earth (in some churches “evolution” is virtually a swear word), but their faith is no less authentic. They believe that God lovingly guided the whole process, and that the Earth is about 4 billion years old. That’s essentially the Old Earth theory.
I won't argue the merits and problems of either theory, of which there are many for each. Instead, I'm proposing a radical new idea: perhaps both may be true. That is, the New Earth and Old Earth ideas, although they hold to opposing ages of the Earth, may not be mutually exclusive.
Maybe they’re both right.
How, you ask, could that be possible? How could the Earth be 8000 years old and 4 billion years old? The answer is this: God created the Earth with an age.
Let me explain. Consider the New Earth theory of creation. When God made the Earth, he created mountains and sand and rivers. He created volcanoes and ocean rifts. Clouds, weather patterns, and layers in the atmosphere all appeared immediately. Each of these had an age at their inception. Mountain ranges slowly get pushed skyward by the movement of tectonic plates then get worn down by wind and precipitation. But when God said, “Let land appear” (Gen 1:9), there were age-old mountains instantly, which looked as if they’d been forming for eons. The mountains, only seconds old, had an age of millions of years.
Or take the birds: when God created birds (according to the New Earth theory), he couldn’t have just made a bunch of eggs ready to hatch. Most of the hatchlings wouldn’t have survived without parents to care for them! On the contrary, according to the New Earth theory, the chicken came before the egg. God made full-grown birds first, and then they reproduced according to their kind. But he made them with an age.
Now, let’s consider the first humans. When God created Adam and Eve, he presumably created them with an age too. It’s anyone’s guess as to how old they were – teenagers, twenties, thirties – but God must have created them a certain number of years old. It wouldn’t have worked any other way. If God made them as newborn babies, they wouldn’t have lasted very long in the garden of Eden. And even babies have an age – they develop for nine months before they’re born. Their birthdate isn’t necessarily the beginning of their life.
So why not the Earth?
Is it so unfeasible that the Earth couldn't be old and new at the same time? Old Earth claims that the egg came before the chicken; New Earth claims the chicken came before the egg; but perhaps the chicken was made with an empty eggshell on the ground. None of this is beyond the scope of possibility when you believe in the God of the Bible. This idea, however, is not intuitive to us. In fact, it feels quite uncomfortable at first. But isn’t that how all revolutionary ideas begin?
So according to this Old-and-New Earth idea, God created the world with an age of about 4 billion years old. At the moment of creation, mountain ranges towered high, ocean crevasses plunged low, dinosaur bones filled the ground. There was evidence of glaciers and ice ages, mammoths frozen solid at the poles, volcanoes long since dormant, and craters from meteorite strikes. But it had all existed for only moments when “God saw all he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen 1:31). Adam and Eve were twenty years old but had only just taken their first breaths. Everything was old and new at the same time.
Think about it. This strange idea doesn't contradict anything in the Bible or any current scientific evidence. The biggest problem with the idea that the Earth is both old and new is simply why. Why would God create a world with an age? Well, we can speculate and theorize until the cows come home, but there’s an inherent danger in discarding an idea about God because we don’t understand why. Because he’s God, that’s why. His ways are above our ways (Is 55:8-9). Science, reasoning, and biblical studies can seek out answers (sometimes successfully, sometimes not), but sometimes our collective wisdom is just too young to understand. We may never fully understand the reasons behind God’s actions until we meet him face to face. When we ask God why, sometimes the only logical answer is just because he’s God.
Now, this theory isn't perfect. The fossil record includes evidence of disease and predation, which presumably wouldn't have happened in a "very good" world before sin entered it. Also, there are human bones buried in the ground that supposedly date to times well before Adam and Eve. Does this mean there are inaccuracies with radio-isotope dating? Or did God put soul-less corpses in the bedrock when he founded the foundations of the earth? As you can see, there are some major challenges with reconciling the Old Earth and New Earth viewpoints. Another trouble with this idea is that neither side likes it. Neither Old Earth or New Earth can be proved right or wrong if they align. With no victory over the other side attainable, both reject the middle ground and retreat to their trenches. However, indefensibility doesn’t mean untrue. These two age-of-the-earth theories that have long been debated aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, just unpopular when harmonized.
The entire debate between Old Earth and New Earth may be a moot point because both might be right. Old Earth may correctly state that the age of the universe is billions of years, but age doesn’t equate to time in existence. New Earth may also be correct to say that all of creation has only existed for thousands of years, but there’s evidence that suggests billions of years of geologic changes are present earth. Also, let's not forget that science is constantly evolving - the interpretation of physical data may very well change as technology matures, as it has since the scientific method was developed. We may never know the full truth this side of heaven, but suffice to say, it probably looks a lot different than we all expect.